Dance Even as the Delhi International Art Festival got off to a rousing start with Bharatanatyam and dance theatre, the Bharatiya Kala Kendra’s decades-old Ramayana production continues to draw throngs of its own. LEELA VENKATARAMAN
There were two snaking queues rubbing shoulders — one for the Ramlila at Bharatiya Kala Kendra, still drawing crowds after so many years, and the other, for the Bharatanatyam performance that was part of the Delhi International Art Festival at the Kamani. If one symbolised the agelessness of certain themes in the Indian psyche, the other represented the face of global understanding through the languages of art, transcending national boundaries and identities.
In a packed Kamani, the Prasiddha Dance Repertory headed by dancer/festival director Prathibha Prahlad, under the able lead of Bangalore’s Bharatanatyam dancer Satyanarayana Raju, took the stage in a delightful group Bharatanatyam start to the festival. The troupe, with proficient Bangalore-based dancers, began with a peppy nritta opening with neat sarukkai(s), mandi adavu(s) and kudittumettu, the rehearsed discipline of synchronised movement ending with a typical posture of obeisance. If the Adharam Madhuram Krishna mantra combining the joyously descriptive with the representative caught the winsome aura of the deity, totally different in more internalised expression was the salutation to Shiva in the mantra “Nagendra Haaraaya…” Replete with strong imagery from the start, with Krishna as Vishnu lying on the serpent couch, made up of several dancers, was the finale in Hindolam, “Sri Krishna Sharanam Mama” with the Dashavatar shown through fleeting formations. The ending on a vivid note had flashes of Krishna overpowering Kaliya the serpent, as Govardhana Giridhari, as Arjuna’s charioteer finally preaching the philosophy of the Gita and revealing his omnipresence in Vishwaroopa. The soundtrack with two fine music designers in Raghuram and P. Rama complemented Satyanarayana Raju’s choreographic abilities.
The second half presented by the Cervantes Institute and the Spanish embassy was a Flamenco/Kathakali dance theatre interaction, inspired by the ever contemporary societal issue of mistreatment of woman as reflected in the plight of Draupadi in the Mahabharata, produced by Eva Gonzales and directed by Cesar Lorente. The three characters of Draupadi, Dushasana and Bhima were represented by the redoubtable Flamenco dancer Tamar Gonzales from Spain and actors Kalamandalam Bijukumar and Bujulal Narayana Pillai from Kerala. The action revolved round the passionately expressive portrayal of Draupadi by the Flamenco dancer, whose body and hands spoke most communicatively — not omitting the tap dancing footwork. In her black skirt, contrasted by the scarlet red shawl, she was a striking figure, her dance to the evocatively warm tones of the guitar played by Julian Vanquero having its own space in the presentation, not interfering in any way with the Kathakali. Dushasana’s dramatic entrance from the rear of the stage aisles, and his parading — much like what is seen in Kerala temples at times — culminated in a powerful opening confrontation with Draupadi, humiliating her by dragging her by the hair and symbolically undressing her by pulling off the shawl. While for the general public it was high theatre, for those who could not erase the powerful images of Kathakali’s original Dushasana Vadham (and this, one reminded oneself, was a different production), Bhima’s movements, despite some Kalasam nritta, seemed repetitive while trying to portray the fire and fury of this character who vows to kill Dushasana and anoint wife Draupadi’s open locks with his blood to avenge the insult. The Dushasana/Bhima encounter seemed tame, till Raudra Bhima began to dig his nails into the entrails of the fallen villain. For this critic, the best part was the way the chenda/maddalam/talam rhythm combined with the guitar strumming, two very different art genres on a combined journey of creating a mood and never appearing culturally or musically clashing. Singer N. Radhakrishnan also joined in to merge his alap with the situation in the narrative. Altogether a fine beginning and initiative, quintessentially symbolic of cross cultural interaction!
“Never being complacent about an old production being a crowd puller, reading a great deal of writings on the Ramayana, seeing Soorpanakha with an alter ego using a mask, as presented by Asavare Majumdar, Maharajji’s student, I perceive, as years go by, more and more layers in each part of the story — and try to ring in the changes in the ballet to keep it evergreen,” says Shobha Deepak Singh of the Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra Ramlila, explaining how this oldest production of her institution is still its piece-de-resistance. “Left to myself, I would do a different Rama story — but twisting Ram’s character would be considered blasphemous — though one can try many changes with Krishna’s story. Look what is done in theatre? My mother Sumitraji did not like any changes. “There is no lakshman-rekha in the original story, but so deeply ingrained is it in public perception that it remains part of the story.”
With a racy first half in particular, which moves at a clip which almost makes one forget time, to the last scene, there are changes one can see, apart from new costumes and sets, to the sub-text shown through writings on a screen on top of the area of action. Kaikeyi and Manthara only made Dasaratha keep promises made to Kaikeyi before his marriage. The opening scenes with Lav/Kush reciting Ram’s story are all differently presented, with how the hunter’s killing of the mating bird stirred compassionate Valmiki to poetry. The idea of maya mriga comes out vividly using two dancers dressed alike and as they move in and out of the performance space, it is like an optical illusion with the animal disappearing from one end from where it seems to emerge again the very next second. The instant scene changes and the organisational slickness remain the ballet’s main strengths. The story may be Indian, but dancers are from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and other countries!
(The production “Shree Ram” is on daily at Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra till November 11. Entry is by tickets priced at Rs.500, 300, 200 and 100.)